The first night we stayed in the new house, only one bedroom was finished. The rest of the house was littered with blue tarps and buckets, toolboxes and wood scraps. That first night, Mama, Daddy, and I piled onto a full-sized mattress on the bedroom floor and ate mini-cheeseburgers and fries, while we watched a TV that Daddy had stacked on top of a crate. He’d twisted a metal coat hanger into the back of the TV so that whenever the screen blinked between commercials, antler-shadows formed on the walls. I liked to watch the shadows more than the television.
The three of us moved in a few weeks before Eric and Les. It took my older siblings a while to accept that they wouldn’t be living in town—Lock 7 Lane was their home. Eventually, they left my grandparents’ houses and reluctantly returned to that winding road on the outskirts of that too-small Tennessee town, where the Cumberland River flowed from our backdoor right through the city’s center, dividing it in half and placing us on the wrong side of the bridge. They each had their own bedroom in the back of the house, which mirrored their bedrooms from the old house at the end of the road. I still didn’t have a room of my own. My bed, toys, and dresser were placed in the open loft area just outside the master bedroom on the top floor. Mama and Daddy thought Les, who was nearly twenty, would move out soon, so I could move into her bedroom.
For months the house remained unfinished, but we lived there anyway. Large scaffolding climbed to the top of the twenty-five-foot ceiling in the living room, and I would throw toys and books from the loft to the scaffolding and then run down the stairs and monkey myself up the metal crisscross of tubes and platforms to see if my stuffed animals and action figures had survived the trip across the sky. Up there, I was a trapeze artist, a magician, or a mountain explorer. I stood on that metal structure for hours acting out scenes from an imagined circus or battling unseen coyotes that threatened me from below.
After we moved into the new house, surrounded by new trees and sounds and smells, I became even more lost in a world of make-believe. When I wasn’t in school, I spent most of my time acting out scenes from movies I’d memorized or talking with my imaginary friends. I couldn’t wait to get home every day so I could play with my real friends—the ones that existed only in my head.
“Who the hell are you always talking to, kid?” Daddy would ask as I quietly brushed passed him in the basement.
“My friends,” I replied, on my way outside, where I spent a lot of time in the small clearings and tiny patches of woods that encompassed our house.
We had never lived near any kids my age, so I’d invented invisible people to play with when I was only three or four. As far as I was concerned, my invisible friends were just as fun as any real kid I knew, and they didn’t talk back unless I wanted them to. With my imaginary friends, I could explore the curiosities I had about life and death and the supernatural without feeling afraid, since I was in control. I constantly killed off my invisible friends in gruesome and gory scenes—death by crocodile attack, shark attack, demon attack. Those were my favorites. Sometimes I’d pretend I won some special power that enabled me to cross over to the Dark Side and retrieve my lost friends from hell. Often, though, I’d let the friend go, and I’d invent a new friend to take her place.
Not too long after we’d moved into the house, my cousin Ashley came over to spend the night. She rode the bus home with me on Friday, and we immediately dropped our backpacks in the basement and went outside to explore. I showed Ashley all the secret places around the new house where I liked to hide and play. I took her to my favorite fallen tree, and showed her a mysterious snake hole in the hillside. I pointed out the red frog that bounced across our patio every afternoon. After an hour of exploring, Ashley said she was bored and asked what we could play next.
I had rarely been bored in my life. My imagination supplied me with plenty of people to play with, places to explore, and scenarios to act out. “Um, we can play with Jodie and Mocky,” I suggested. Jodie and Mocky were my two favorite imaginary friends. I’d been playing with them since I was three.
“Oh, gosh,” she said. “The invisible people? I can’t see them, you know.” Ashley rolled her eyes and batted at a rock with a stick.
“Oh, I know. I can’t really see them either. I just pretend.”
“You don’t need to play with made up people when I’m here. I’m a real person, Jo.”
“Right. Then what should we play?” My cheeks burned red from embarrassment.
Ashley thought for a moment as she balanced herself on a rock wall Daddy was building along the perimeter of our home. “Let’s play detective. We’re both detectives, and we have to solve a murder case. Oh and our boyfriends are detectives too. We’re all partners solving the crime. Pretend like my name is Charlotte and my boyfriend is Patrick Swayze. Now you.”
At an early age, Ashley and I had become enthralled with detective shows, soap operas, and other forms of entertainment that were, by most adults’ standards, unsuitable for six-year-olds. Days of Our Lives taught us all we needed to know about relationships, and The Dukes of Hazzard schooled us on how to be outlaws. It was not unordinary to find us setting small fires, performing witch chants, or shooting tiny animals with b.b. guns. Aside from her lack of invisible friends, Ashley had an imagination that rivaled my own.
I leaned against the rock wall. “I’ll just be Lesley.”
“You can’t be Lesley,” Ashley said. “That’s your sister’s name. How about Veronica or Claudia?”
“I don’t really feel like those names,” I said. “What about Heather?”
“That’s our cousin’s name. Just be Claudia. We’re Charlotte and Claudia,” Ashley said, swooping her arm across the sky dramatically. “Now who’s your boyfriend?”
“Lion-O from Thundercats,” I said without hesitation. I was fairly certain that Lion-O was the ideal man. I liked his long red mane and blue leotard.
Ashley frowned. “You can’t have a cartoon cat-person for a boyfriend. That’s gross.”
“Then can mine just be Patrick Swayze, too?” I was desperate to finish the setup for the game, so we could begin solving the murder case. “They could be twins.”
“No! Think of someone else.” Ashley was getting annoyed.
“Can I pretend like me and my boyfriend just broke up or something?”
Ashley thought about this for a moment. “Yes! Great! And that’s who the dead body is. Now we have to figure out who killed your boyfriend.” Ashley suspiciously squinted around the woods.
Over the next few hours, we climbed to the tops of hills and deep down into ravines, we dug holes and placed fictitious evidence into our bags, we bickered about how the murder took place, and whether or not a ghost or a vampire killed my imaginary boyfriend. Ashley was one of the few people who shared my interest in death and ghosts. She didn’t like to include my imaginary friends in our games, but she was more than ready to talk about ghosts and demons, and she seemed to know a lot about them. She did, after all, have cable and a Ouija board. But sometimes I’d get a little scared when Ashley’s scenarios felt too real.
While looking for clues to solve the murder mystery, we found an empty Crown Royal box in a ditch below my driveway. Together, we examined the box, tracing the embossed crown on the front. Ashley said it was an important piece of evidence for our case. It never occurred to me that the box belonged to Daddy; he must have discarded it at the foot of the driveway before he unhappily climbed the hill toward home. Over the years, I must have found countless clues scattered around the overgrown hillside—Crown Royal boxes, crushed beer cans, and half-empty vodka bottles tucked away in holes and lodged underneath old boards. But I didn’t know those were clues, back then.
“This is the magical box the ghost used to enchant your dead boyfriend,” Ashley whispered. “If we open it, we’ll be sent to hell forever.”
I had almost forgotten we were playing make-believe, and something about the box made me feel anxious.
“I don’t think Jesus would like this game,” I said abruptly. “Let’s play something else now. Something not about ghosts.” I tossed the Crown Royal box into the weeds.
Ashley shrugged, but she understood. “Come on. Let’s go.”
We were both quiet as we walked toward home. We stopped halfway to watch a squirrel fly from tree to tree.
Ashley cleared her throat. “Can I ask you a church question?”
Ashley asked me questions all the time, since I went to church a lot more than she did, although the little Pentecostal church I attended several times a week was part of her heritage, too. Our grandmother had preached there until she died, back when we were still toddlers. Ashley’s family left to join a nice, calm Baptist congregation near town, while my family stayed to carry on the tradition of the country church on the outskirts, where members prayed in tongues, with hands lifted toward heaven, shouting praises to God, anointing heads with oil, and speaking prophesies of the good news of the return of Jesus. There, I learned to sing and worship; I memorized countless scriptures and Biblical facts. At a young age, I knew to prepare for the End of Days, and, most nights, I had nightmares about flying into a too-bright heaven that sparkled with jewels and golden streets and terrifying angels, while demons hovered just below the clouds and waited to yank me from the sky. Ashley thought I had some special knowledge of God because of my church, but I was confused, too. None of it made much sense to me; I simply didn’t ask questions.
I sat down on one of the large rocks that lined our driveway and Ashley sat next to me.
“Is the Holy Ghost a real ghost?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “not exactly. It’s not like a scary ghost.” I didn’t know much about the Holy Ghost yet. I was too young to fully grasp what was going on when the women in my church threw back their heads and spoke in a language I didn’t understand. I only knew the Holy Ghost was, somehow, God, and that meant I wasn’t supposed to ask too many questions about it.
“What is it then?” she asked. “If it’s not a ghost.”
I thought for a minute. “The Holy Ghost is when God gets inside a person.”
Ashley’s eyes widened. “And then they act all crazy and dance around and talk funny?”
“Sort of. They don’t always dance,” I said. “Sometimes they just do the talking part.”
“What are they saying?” Ashley talked in a whisper, as if she were afraid someone or something would overhear our conversation and punish us.
“Don’t know. Mama says it’s God’s language.”
“Does everybody in your church have it?” Ashley asked. “Are you gonna get it one day?”
The idea of getting the Holy Ghost had never occurred to me until that moment, and I suddenly realized that I would be expected to grow up and become one of those women. I would one day throw back my head and let God speak through me. I would dance and shake and cry. A shiver ran through my body and stole my breath.
“No way.” I shook my head. “Not me.”
“Good,” Ashley nodded. “It sounds too scary.” She sighed as she started back toward the house. “God’s language, huh? I’m not going to understand anything in heaven.”
“Me either,” I said. But it wasn’t heaven I was worried about; what scared me most about the Holy Ghost was the idea of being invaded by something invisible and powerful and unknown. Something I couldn’t control. Something that would forever change me.
I looked back at the purple and gold box shining in the weeds and wondered if there really was a magical box that could take you someplace else. Not hell, of course, but not heaven either. Just some other world.
Joanna Grisham lives in Lexington, KY and teaches English comp and creative writing courses at two nearby universities. Her work has appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review and is forthcoming from MAYDAY Magazine.